Forty Winks

It’s easy to get distracted by meadows in spring. They are decked out in a shimmering cloak of buttercups and yellow-rattle, and birds are warbling from every bush. The contrast with the muddy vistas of November is as great as a caterpillar and a butterfly – and plenty of those are about too, come to think of it.

HV1 26 May 2019

But not to be outdone, the woods are changing too. Our rarest local mammal is awake – well, nearly.

Dormouse 25 May 19

Hazel dormouse, handled under licence at one of the local monitoring sites. Not quite out of torpor, the state of reduced activity that hibernating animals return to in conditions such as cold nights. In fact, this particular nesting box held two half-dozing dormice.

Dormouse2 25 May 19

A dormouse monitoring site consists of 50 nest boxes, which are very like bird boxes except they are set up with the entrance hole facing the tree. It is illegal to open them without a licence because dormice are given the highest level of protection under our laws, sadly for good reason – while no one would harm a dormouse on purpose, their numbers nationally continue to decline, mostly due to loss of habitat.

Setup DM3

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, we’ve managed to retain that habitat in my part of the North Downs more by accident than intent. Dormice like woodland with a dense understorey, as well as hedgerows that are thick and tall and not cut every year.

For a variety of reasons, these simple conditions are now hard to come by in the wider UK countryside. We are changing the environment at a rate wholly out of pace with nature’s capacity to adapt. But just sometimes, you stumble across something which reminds you of the depth of years that are within our forests, and the antiquity that deserves respect.

Giant tree2 Mortimer Forest May 19

This is probably the largest tree that I’ve ever seen outside of the tropics. It is a beech in the wilds of Shropshire, with limbs as thick as a normal tree’s trunk.

Giant tree Mortimer Forest May 19

It is tempting to wonder how many dormice have hibernated in its shadow over the centuries.

Life at Mouse-Height

Every field is a jungle when you stand two inches tall.

Short tailed field vole 23 Oct 2017

Short-tailed field voles are more common than people in the UK, but far harder to spot because they spend their lives within dense grass. They are placid, peaceable, incomparably scruffy little creatures. They are also a crucial component of the UK’s ecosystems and support foxes, owls and many other wild carnivores.

When the vole is hiding, its grass-tunnels remain.

Small mammal run 111013

It’s often a question of looking for fieldsign when you’re trying to study rodents. I’ve been using ink tunnels in various projects over the last year – tubes designed to capture tiny footprints.

Ink tunnel tracks

These footprints belong to a mouse, probably a yellow-necked mouse. They’re a larger species than the familiar wood mouse and can be distinguished by a yellow band on their throat.

They are also obsessively fond of birdfood!

YN mouse 150406

But sometimes – just sometimes – the ink tunnels strike gold.

Tracks from Tunnel5 220916

Three upside-down triangles equals a hazel dormouse!

Dormouse photo2

I’ve recorded dormice in three sites within my parish and consider us extremely fortunate to still have them. There’s no doubt that their UK population is in real trouble, mostly due to habitat loss. They are one of our most tree-dependent mammals, as well as the sleepiest; they can easily spend six months snoozing.

This is a dormouse nest. Unlike the chaotic nest of a yellow-necked mouse, dormice will weave honeysuckle bark into a very tight ball with a cozy chamber at the centre.

DSCN1728

They hibernate at ground level, however. The temperatures have dropped steeply in the last few days and I expect most of my local dormice are now dozing. I hope they have a peaceful winter.